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Althea Gibson, First Black Tennis Player to Win Wimbledon

March 01, 2011
by Shannon Firth
Tennis legend Althea Gibson won 56 championships and five Grand Slam singles titles. Dubbed “the Jackie Robinson of Tennis,” Gibson made it possible for other black players such as Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters to compete.

Althea Gibson’s Early Days

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Althea Gibson was born in Silver, S.C., on Aug. 25, 1927. The following year, her father, a sharecropper, moved the family to New York, where he found work in a garage. In Harlem, the Gibsons made a home for Althea, her three sisters and one brother nicknamed “Bubba.”

As a young girl, Althea was tall, lanky and rebellious. She started playing paddleball and shuffleboard on the streets when she was 9 years old. Often, when she should have been in school, Althea was playing softball with the neighborhood boys in Central Park. "I just wanted to play, play, play,” she told Time for a 1957 cover story. “My mother would send me out with money for bread, and I'd be out from morning to dark—and not bring home the bread.”

When Althea was 13, Harlem musician Buddy Walker noticed her fierceness at paddleball and gifted her with two used tennis rackets. He also introduced her to her first coach, a one-armed tennis pro named Fred Johnson.

By chance, Althea also met famed boxer Sugar Ray Robinson at a bowling alley. The teenager charmed both Robinson and his wife, Edna Mae, who saw through Althea’s tough-talking façade to the insecurities beneath. In addition to offering emotional support, the Robinsons helped finance Althea’s transportation costs to various tournaments.

Gibson’s Tennis Career

In 1942, Gibson entered the girls’ championship of the Negro American Tennis Association’s New York State Open. In 1946, two African-American doctors and tennis players, Robert Walter Johnson and Hubert Eaton, discovered her and became her patrons. She lived with Johnson’s family in the summers, following the black tennis circuit; in winters, she stayed with Eaton’s family in North Carolina and caught up on the classes she missed, having dropped out of high school a few years earlier.

On the court, Eaton tried to teach Althea respect for her opponents. “She was still unable to accept defeat with grace. If I ran up a 4-1 lead, she’d just quit. Anyone who could get a lead on her could beat her,” he told Time.

Balancing tennis and school, Gibson graduated 10th in her class from high school at age 19 and from Florida A& M University at 25. Meanwhile, despite winning every ATA tournament from 1947 to 1956, she was barred from national tournaments because of her race.

In July of 1950, something changed. In a letter to the editors of American Lawn Tennis magazine, tennis champion Alice Marble argued that black players should be allowed to play in the same tournaments as whites. “It so happens that I tan very heavily in the summer—but I doubt that anyone ever questioned my right to play in the nationals because of it. It’s just as ridiculous to reject Althea Gibson,” Marble wrote.

On Aug. 22, that same year, Gibson became the first African American to compete in the National Grass Court Tennis Championships—now called the U.S. Open—in Forest Hills, N.Y. A few days later, she lost in a close match with Louise Brough, a three-time Wimbledon champion.

In 1955, the U.S. sent Gibson on an international tour as an athletic ambassador. The following year, Gibson’s practice, perseverance and the confidence she’d gained from her tour paid off. She won the French Open in Paris, followed by back-to-back victories at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958. The Associated Press named Gibson its Athlete of the Year in 1957 and 1958.

The Rest of the Story

In spite of her success, Gibson was not a wealthy woman. “If she had been a half-step later (in her tennis career), she would have been a multimillionaire,” friend and former New York Mayor David Dinkins remarked.

But tournaments in the 1950s didn’t involve monetary prizes and lucrative endorsements. It was a sport for the privileged, not for poor black girls from Harlem, explains writer Darryl Lorenzo Wellington for The Crisis magazine, a publication of the NAACP.

After retiring from tennis in 1958, Gibson, who had once dreamt of becoming a lounge singer, released her own album, “Althea Gibson Sings,” and authored a biography, “I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.” She toured with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing tennis at halftime, and appeared as a guest on the show “What’s My Line?” with John Charles Daly.

In 1964, when she was 37 years old, Althea began playing golf with the Ladies Professional Golf Association, where she once again battled racism. The Beaumont Country Club in Texas agreed to let her play the course, but wouldn’t allow her to use the clubhouse or the bathrooms, writes LPGA Hall of Famer Carol Mann.

In 1975, Gibson became the state commissioner of athletics for New Jersey. She also started the Althea Gibson Foundation to encourage and support underprivileged student athletes interested in golf and tennis.

Gibson married and divorced twice, and had no children. She died on Sept. 28, 2003, in East Orange, N.J., following a stroke and two cerebral aneurysms. “[F]rom the first time I saw her play, when I was 13 years old, she became, and remained, one of my true heroines,” Billie Jean King, of Title IX fame, wrote in a statement following Gibson’s death.
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